Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (OSR)
This massive rule-set clocks in at 430 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page general hyperlinked ToC (kudos for the added comfort!),4 pages extra-detailed ToC (again, hyperlinked for your convenience!), 4 pages of general index (again with hyperlinks and at the front of the book for easy navigation!), 4 pages of spell index (you guessed it – with hyperlinks, at the front of the book, for comfortable navigation), 2 pages of SRD, 1 page character sheet, leaving us with a massive 412 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This book was provided by a patreon (not sure if the gentleman wanted to be identified) and requested as a prioritized review. My review is based on the pdf-version of this massive book, since I do not own the print version and therefore cannot comment on the merits of the print version.
Okay, so this is, in general, an OSR-type of game; it is suffused in the aesthetics of old school roleplaying. But this is not just a rehash. To contextualize this book: We do not have a system that tries to be too close to the original versions of the game; unlike Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry or, for example, OSRIC, this moves a bit further from the established base. At the same time, it does not assume a d6-style gamplay like AFG or VSD6 and, while more “modern” in several aspects, the game is not as radical a departure from the old framework as NGR. But how does Fantastic Heroes & Witchery fit into the OSR as a whole, how does it work?
Well, among the attributes, there are no surprises: 6 attributes, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. Human range is usually 3 – 18, with 19 being classified as superhuman. Modifiers range from -4 (at 1) to +4 (at 19) for the attributes and maximum spell level is similarly capped by attributes. Very high relevant spellcasting attributes can provide a very limited amount of bonus spell slots. The system assumes a superhuman attribute cap of 25, akin to older editions of the game.
The attribute modifiers similarly should not provide too much surprises: Strength mod is added to melee attack + damage and physical skill checks like running, swimming, etc. and is used in saves vs. physically impeding obstacles, for example. Dexterity modifier is added to ranged attack roll (not damage!), used for Stealth etc. and may be used in saves to avoid e.g. a dragon’s breath etc. – you get where this goes right? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll realize at this point that saves. Saves are denoted by a fixed value on the respective class table, and quite a few of the options herein further modify that. Still, as provided, there can be saves associated with any of the attributes, which means that, in this aspect, the closest analogue would probably be D&D 5e.
Races in the system are not *necessarily* treated as a class, but instead…well. As a race. As such, though, there is a balancing aspect applied to them – we have maximum levels for the non-human races to balance that aspect. A handy table collates these caps, just fyi. However, the races do have minimum attribute requirements AND maximums; when you’re a dwarf, your maximum Dexterity can’t exceed 17, for example. Now, I did write “necessarily” above, since there are actually racial classes for the non-human races; in these, they generally have unlimited advancement and this, ultimately, provides an out-game motivation to choose these. In-game, this makes the races more culturally relevant.
Important note: The race does determine the racial hit-die; this hit-die denotes the wound capacity; class-levels provide hit dice as well; these are vitality hit points. You will note at this point, that the system requires a distinction between character level and class level – and that, by virtue of the racial hit points, 1st level characters are not wet towels in a world of razors. Personally, I consider that to be a pretty elegant solution. Movement rates are denoted in both 1e/2e and 3e-style notation – default would be 12’’ (30 feet). Interesting among the racial write-ups: Instead of 3e and the follow up’s distinction between low-light and darkvision, we retain the classic infravision, but make distinctions in how exactly it works, from race to race. We do get the classic races, including half-elves and half-orcs. Humans are set apart by an experience bonus…but there is more. Beyond these usual suspects, we also add rules for tieflings – who are treated more as a template race here – there could, e.g. be Halfling-based tieflings and dark elves, to note one example that is depicted in full, would be considered to be a tiefling race.
Upon completing this section, you will immediately notice that this book, familiarity nonewithstanding, seems to be a bit…different. For after the traditional fantasy races, we get weird tales races – a whole chapter. This is not an afterthought, either – this section is pretty much the equivalent of another rule book’s whole racial chapter. Now, unsurprisingly, this section is deeply infused by Appendix N-aesthetics; we get rules for exotic humans (you could use the rules presented here to make Carcosan human species, for example); there are rules for Earthlings (humans from Earth, particularly suitable for planes-hopping and Sword &Planet, obviously), who actually gain some abilities that are WEIRD – what may be common here may well be uncanny in another world and we can’t fathom the effects alien worlds might have on us…so personally, I liked that. Tainted humans are those that have been tainted by radiation, exposure to the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, etc.; there are rules for Planet of the Apes-style Primates; for Reptilian PCs (with subtribes based on chromatic dragon colors for the dragonborn fans), revenants (yep, playable undead, who offset their power with the need to consume life and vulnerabilities) and there even are winged folk. While I am not a big fan of low-level flight, the weight-based restrictions imposed on their flight and the other modifications do offset this significant advantage somewhat. Finally, witchlings are humans that devolved (or evolved) into another race via constant exposure to the occult and potent, black magic.
Okay, after this massive section, we get a couple of general backgrounds to choose from; Alignment is less important in FH&W; most people are assumed to be, basically neutral; the only other axis that is relevant is the old one – Law and Chaos. That being said, exemplars of these are probably rarer than in comparable games.
As you could glean from the existence of racial classes, there is bound to be a HEFTY chapter on classes; a handy table in the beginning groups classes by type/race and then lists them.
Classes provide a BtH – the Bonus-to-Hit, basically the attack bonus. BtH can be classified as full, ¾ or ¼ – generally, spellcasters will be REALLY sucky at hitting things; worse so than in even d20-based games. New vitality hit dice are gained each level, up to 9th; for the remainder of levels (as classes range in levels from 1 – 13), we get fixed bonus hit points. Classes do have requirements, feature the equivalent of proficiencies regarding weaponry and armor, and sport class features; classes may also provide bonuses to specifc saves – fighters, for example, get +2 to saving throws to Strength and Constitution saves. In general, you can assume each odd level to provide a class feature. In this way, the classes presented herein are indebted to new-school aesthetics – and, in my mind, they’re better off for it, as even fighters allow for a bit of customization and player agenda. Now, before the grognards out there start hissing and booing: The respective features, in general, remain well beyond the rules-complexity of e.g. 5e, let alone PFRPG. Speaking of which: The berserker and knight, to take two variants, would be the stand-ins for barbarian/paladin; Nice: knights per se are NOT per default paladins or antipaladins/blackguards; instead, there is a chance to gain this status in play, but it remains rare; considering that paladins were historically known as the 12 peers, foremost members of Charlemagne’s court defined by larger than life and mostly fictitious propaganda denoting the superiority of Christian martial arts over that of the Sarazens. I digress.
A big departure from traditional depictions of classes would be the lack of a divine caster – instead, we get an elegant little class that, to me, feels much more “divine” that the god-coated cleric ever did – the Friar. Armor up to chain-mail, d8 HD…and basically, the main draw of the class is the prayer mechanic: You roll dice, depending on your level, as a full-round action. This generates an effect: Countering magic, blessing allies, dispelling charms – you know “magic” stuff that is actually ascribed to the devout. However, each subsequent use of prayer actually adds to the chances of not getting the aid you prayed for. You begin with rolling 1d6 + Wisdom modifier and increase that to up to 3d12 base dice at 13th level; the second prayer only succeeds on a 2+; the third only on a 3+…and so on. This is dead simple, easy to grasp and flavorful. Oh, and at higher levels, they can ask for divine intervention. Seriously, seriously love this class. The mystic would be basically a monk class and is a subset of the friar; the templar would be the hand of god, the martial, blessed soldier. Assassins, bards and acrobats would be subsets of the thief.
Wizards would be the primary casters, gaining spells of up to 6th level, with warlocks and wise man/woman as subsets; before you’re asking: No, warlocks are not all-day blasters, but rather casters that dabble in forbidden magics, traitors to their kin by virtue of the knowledge they crave, if you will. You know. Closer to the actual meaning of the word. I digress. The base array of classes, as a whole, struck me as well-balanced. The rules-language is surprisingly precise and definitely takes a cue from the crisp and precise old-school books and the codification strategies employed by current systems.
Onwards to the racial classes! The clansdwarf would basically be the dwarven specialist fighter; the gothi the armored, dwarven spellcaster who can cast in combat while wielding a weapon; their spells are also not automatically ruined by being hit, making them pretty strong – they get a Constitution save. They are, however, restricted to white magic Elven eldritch archers can, bingo, enchant arrows and their fae-mages are gray magic specialists who may place spells in objects etc. The class comes with subsets – druid-y nature priests called forestalls that can exclusively nature spells and wardens, basically rangers with limited fighting prowess. I’ll give you three guesses what the specialty of gnomish Illusionists is; you’re correct, of course, though their spell-list is called “Delusion”, not illusion in a conscious departure focusing on effect rather than description. Tricksters are basically a hybrid of that class and the thief. Halflings can choose to be the lucky folk champion underdog fighter or the thief-y scout.
Now, there also are weird classes – if I had to codify these fellows in the terms of another rules-system, I’d call them occult classes, perhaps more fitting for early modern/Edwardian/Victorian gameplay; the necronimus, for example, can sense the spirits and gains a degree of awareness of them, though they are, perhaps surprisingly, white magic casters. Occultists would be the black magic side of the coin, defined by corruption and dark lore, but also uniquely suited to defeat fiends and demonic entities – basically the antihero trope.The psychic would be the equivalent of FH&W’s adaptation of the classic old-school psionics: We get the classics like mind blast, Id insinuation, etc., a point-based psi-engine, etc. – but also the attack and defense mode engine. I’m gonna earn some boos and hisses by saying that, but here goes. Old-school psionics suck. I always loved the idea of psionics to death, from the moment when I first read it. However, psionics only got good at 3.5 and onwards, courtesy of Dreamscarred Press and later, Paizo’s psychic spell engine as an alternative. The attack vs. defense mode system, while sensible on paper, never ever played well. It was always exceedingly clunky and frankly, I wished that this class had deviated further from it. Anyway, if this works for you: Cool, I don’t judge, more power to you. Playing with it, I consider it just as clunky as the old-school psionics.
The rifleman would be the gunslinger, the dashing space-opera hero with great aim, defensive rolls and tech-use; the savant is the Doc Brown-style mad tinker/inventor and is a class for the player who enjoys a bit more freeform: While concise guidelines for devices are provided, the engine presented is pretty open. The sky-lord would be the ace pilot, while the wild brute is basically the savage/Mowgli-type character.
Okay, so that would be the class roster; I already touched upon wound hit points and vitality hit points; this distinction is btw. only usually made for PCs – no need to track it with NPCs. Transition from saves of other systems, be that 3.X or old-school games, is btw. dead simple and further facilitated by the handy tables; transition from 5e is a cake-walk that probably doesn’t even require any brain-power; I’m confident I could manage it while horribly drunk. Petrification and polymorph, for example,a re translated to Strength; Death, paralysis and poison to Constitution; Charisma is used to resist spells that do not have a listed attribute noted in their description. Dead simple. Characters heal 1 + Con modifier hit-points per day, 3 + Con modifier for proper rest; characters are dying from -1 to -9 and -10 = death. For every wound hit point lost, characters suffer a cumulative -1 penalty to ALL DICE ROLLS. This means that, even if you have a high racial Hit Die, you won’t necessarily work well longer; it just means that you’ll be more likely to be able to limp away. Skill-checks work pretty much like in current games: d20 + bonuses vs. DC. An average task is DC 10, nearly impossible is DC 30. There are rules for opposed checks, characters may be aided – here, the emphasis on teamwork and assistance provides a nice bit of detail.
Now, let us take a look at the equipment: The system assumes a gold standard and provides both ascending and descending values for armor class notation. Default is, btw. AC 10. Armors impose a skill penalty and a spell failure chance. Exotic armor like dragon armor, samurai armor etc. is included. The weapon selection is massive, provides examples for further weapons, and base damage types are differentiated: Bludgeoning, slashing and piercing damage. A metric ton of kits, outfits etc. can also be found, and yes, there are rules for early firearms, should your game include them….and then, we get something I did not necessarily expect.
A whole chapter on science-fantasy equipment. Whether you’re looking for rules to play fish out of water/time anachronistic adventures, want to do some steampunky reskinning or go full-blown space opera, this chapter provides items from revolvers to laser guns, noting how technology differs from magic in its capabilities. And yes, from zeppelins to hover cars, this section is neat and shows that this type of gameplay is not just a fire and forget afterthought.
If required, a massive table collates item saving throws and substance hardness. Combat should provide no issues for veterans of the game: Initiative is rolled with a d6, adding casting duration or speed factor of the weapon to it; low scores go first. Surprise is btw determined by a d6 roll in scenarios where it’s not clear. The larger the creature, the higher the speed factor of natural attacks. Interesting: The further you walk, the higher the initiative segment, and receiving charges, for example, can decrease the initiative segment. If this sounds weird, it’s not: The roll determines when the action begins, the modification how long it takes. This sounds complicated on paper, but is dead simple in gameplay and can yield some surprisingly rewarding, tactical situations and also allows you to play really cinematic boss fights. Now, the combat system per se is similarly easy – I already covered how attacking works; actions are similarly simple: There are primary actions (basically like standard actions/5e actions), secondary actions (move actions/move/bonus actions) and free actions. The game assumes a critical hit/fumble engine and sports a couple of combat modifier, but not excessively many. Further emphasizing tactics, the game knows multiple defensive actions: Choosing to evade applies +4 to AC versus ONE attack; parrying nets you +2 to AC versus 3 attacks. Apart from fleeing in a panic, there is no real attack of opportunity system in place, but from strangulation to putting a blade against a target’s throat etc., the whole array of combat maneuvers is covered and pretty much available. TWF and unarmed fighting rules are pretty concise as well. Due to the simplicity of the system and the relatively easy math, even called shots tend to work as intended. Morale checks for creatures are also assumed to be part of the offering, just so you know.
Vehicle combat rules are included; turning/rebuking undead is based on creature HD and character level; psionic combat…okay, it’s not bad per se…but it’s indebted to the classic attack/defense mode paradigm. Next. We do also briefly mention duels of rhetoric, which was a nice touch. Exploration, overland movement by terrain, sea- and airborne travel (with trails, wind etc. influencing speed), becoming lost, chase rules (including chases in the wilderness and at sea, dungeons, etc.) supplemented with random hazards/obstacles.
Now, there is one component about the health/hit-point mechanic that I’m not too fond of: Not only do wound hit points influence the rolls of the character, they also decrease speed – which means that dwarves, with their low speed, can theoretically be still in fighting shape, but RAW unable to move. While easily remedied with a minimum value, this is still a surprising guffaw in the otherwise, as a whole rather impressively precise book. While we’re on the subject: I am rather happy that the Constitution-based percentile chance to not being able to be recovered from death makes a return – death should mean something and some of my most nail-bitingly intense moments were the rare resurrection rolls in my earlier games. But I digress.
Among the conditions known, we have the usual suspects like blindness/deafness, diseases, etc. – and 5 levels or drunkenness (YEAH!), 4 levels of fear (you guessed it: shaken, frightened, panicked, cowering)…but it should be noted that both starvation and losing limbs are their own things here. Ability loss persists while the condition that instills it does; ability damage heals at a rate of 1 per day; ability drain needs magical fixing. Energy drain, lycanthropy and petrification are as deadly as the old-school crowd wants them to be. Be afraid. Rules for high altitudes, suffocation, toxic air, smoke, corrosive atmosphere, extreme temperatures, deep snow, avalanches, instant freezing, falling (yes may go partially straight to your wound hit points…), rain, storms – you note it. The chapter on these environmental and terrain effects is massive, exhaustive and pretty much amazing.
Sample NPCs, hireling rules and an easy to grasp monster/NPC-notation – simple, handy, no complaints. Now, beyond the friars mentioned, we take a look at priests and gods – several takes on gods and how they may or may not exist, are provided before we get EVEN MORE class options, like the witch-hunter fighter, the crusader berserker. The preacher bard variant or the inquisitor thief sub-class. A MASSIVE array of deties and potential subjects of worship is provided, remaining setting-agnostic throughout – elemental water, fertility deity, fortune – you get the idea. Basically, you get the rules and then can apply the template provided to your setting of choice. A class for champions or law and chaos and one for the guardians of neutrality complements this section. While we’re at it: We do not stop there. We receive a massive, detailed discussion on the matter of the immortal soul, petitioners, as well as on the planar cosmology assumed (including discussions on positive/negative energy plane and plane of shadows!!) etc. – kudos for going the extra mile here!
Now, magic. As briefly touched upon before, FH&W does not per se assume an arcane/divine divide in magics; instead, magic is categorized in white, gray and black. I am not going to insult your intelligence by explaining these notions, so let’s talk about some of the other components that set the magic engine presented within apart: Beyond even more variant/sub-class options, we actually not only get rules and guidelines for spell-research, but also for incantations. In case you are not familiar with the concept: Think of these more as sword & socery-esque magic, as ritualized forms of magic that can have benefits ranging from a folk magic charm to the calling of a demon lord. The notion and concept has always been exceedingly dear to my heart, so big kudos for providing the like. It should also be noted that the creation of pentagrams and protection circles against entities is provided in its own brief sub-section, once more providing a level of detail and coverage that rather baffled me, in a good way. Speaking of which: The optional rules for severe sorcery put a smile on my face: Obsessions gained from study, true names and their power, inherent danger of preparing spells, ley lines, rules for ritual sacrifice – here, we have a massive selection of rules that can dramatically tweak how magic feels in your game. We get spell-lists by school…and then a MASSIVE grimoire of magic. Spells are listed alphabetically, with class level, casting time, save, target, range, duration, and SR, if applicable, noted in the beginning. I love this. You get the meat of the spell’s effects at one glance, sans having to skim through the whole spell’s text. Kudos for going the detailed route here. Oh, and guess what: Some spells are reversible. How many are there? 666. Yes, that’s A LOT. And there are some pretty cool ones: You know you want to cast zombie stooge ,or time mirror right?
Even after this HUGE chapter, we are NOT YET DONE. The appendices collate ability score in a table; you get age, height and weight tables, personality descriptors; a system to pledge allegiance to causes, nations, organizations, etc. to gain benefits; a system to track cultural origins and language and literacy (OH YES!!!) in THREE categories (primitive, default medieval, advanced (OH DOUBLE YES!!)! We get sample names by race and culture; an optional social origin system; alternatives to determine hit points; a quick and dirty one-page insanity-system; an appendix that collates all skills and provides sample DCs for them as well as conversion guidelines (YEAH!). Want further differentiation between fighters? Combat styles are provided; fencers can feint and deflect arrows, boxers can flurry…you get the idea. Want to adapt your favorite class? Conversion advice for 1E, 2E and 3.X classes is provided.
Oh, and guess what? MORE CLASSES. I am not kidding you. We get basically a Zorro-style adventurer; a druid-y animist; we get scary monks (all those creepy killer monk tropes rolled into a class), a pirate and a naval mage…and the thick brute. For when you want to play the rather dumb, but really strong character. Oh, and guess what – while the default system goes to level 13…there is an epic level appendix that expands that range to frickin’ level 25!
Now, if you want, you can also take a look at the saving throw appendix and take a look at the cool tweaks the system proposes for reactive and active saving throws: Foregoing your action to prepare for an incoming spell or effect would constitute, for example, such a case. This sounds complex, but in play, it is quite the opposite and rather self-explanatory. We close this massive tome with a list of spheres associated with particular domains, should you prefer spellcasting priests, and a critical hit table further expanded, with class specific effects.
Editing and formatting may be the one aspect that some people might grumble about. While the rules-language and formal language is generally precise, there are a couple of instances where it is evident that the author is not a native speaker; not through malapropisms, but via a couple of slightly rough verbiages. These instances are surprisingly few in number, though – I can literally rattle off a list of books with a lower rules-density, penned by native speakers, that did not fare as well as this tome. Layout is surprisingly gorgeous for such a tome: It is crisp, black and white and sports a LOT of nice graphical elements: Scrolls, original and stock art – all comes together rather nicely. The book is incredibly easy to navigate, courtesy of the indices, the hyperlinks and the massive array of nested bookmarks. My one criticism regarding the organization is that, personally, I would have preferred all classes and class options in one place; that is a personal preference, though – I get the decision to group them next to the respective optional rules.
Fantastic Heroes & Witchery is pretty much the “eierlegende Wollmichsau” among the OSR-systems. In case you’re not familiar with the term: It literally means “egglaying woolmilk(-giving)pig” and figuratively denotes a jack-of-all-trades. This book is perhaps the ultimate example of kitchen-sink modularity in OSR games…and beyond.
What do I mean by this? As many of you know, I really like BOTH super-complex games like Pathfinder, slightly simpler ones like 5e, old-school games AND really rules-lite games. Here’s the thing, though – ultimately, for longer games, you require two things to stave off boredom, or at least, I do. I need options and the capability to depict multiple types of gameplay. Sure, I love a good GUMSHOE investigation! I absolutely can get behind an amazing mega-dungeon hackfest! I adore really bleak purist horror! But know what I cherish about both the complex systems and the OSR-movement as a whole? Both provide a gazillion of ways to modify and tweak the game. Sure, I can play, e.g. LotFP as the designated quasi-historical weird fantasy game…and add some Stars Without Numbers etc. But this meshing, at one point, becomes a bit more complex than it needs to be. As “simple” as most old-school rules are, they quickly become less simple once you start getting into the heavy tweaking; that’s not bad for short games, but I prefer longer campaigns, and thus a sense of consistency in that department.
Dominique Crouzet’s Fantastic Heroes & Witchery delivers just that for me. It’s a masterpiece. It’s like coming home. This game manages to walk the tightrope: You can play it as a rather simple, classic game on par with the big OSR-systems…or you can make use of the massive wealth of options presented. The combat, as depicted herein, is dynamic and incredibly fun and tactical – it rewards player brains and forethought. Moreover, it does not fall prey to them “I hit it with my sword”-syndrome, where the martial characters just stand around and bash on things. You can literally run a combat, where a gigantic Kaiju tries to squash the PCs as they hurry from cover to cover. I have rarely seen a system that is so simple, yet rewarding and complex, that lets you create such cinematic moments. The simple skill-engine nets a ton to do beyond killing things.
And better yet: Much like 3.X and PFRPG or 5e, the system sports an incredible flexibility: You can literally tie in almost anything into it with minimal fuss: Want to add in full-blown horror? No problem, the framework’s already here; expanding it is a cakewalk. Do you still have your favorite module from such a system lying around, the one you never got to run? Well, conversion is ridiculously simple. For 5e, you can basically do in on the fly as well. Want to include spacecraft rules? No problem. Heck, you could even translate a really complex combo-based martial artist class to this system, provided you have a bit of design skill. This system is not only compatible with regards to other OSR-games, it extends that compatibility to the new school systems and creates what may well be the absolute apex of system modularity I have seen so far, all without losing its own identity and touch. The magic-classification, the friar class, the way in which races are handled (which btw. also makes race –class conversion ridiculously simple), the excessive attention to detail provided for things like vehicles, travel, etc. – I have rarely seen a book that made me, time and again, smile so much. NGR, in comparison, is a glorious system as well, but conversion takes more effort, particularly when converting from newer systems.
The biggest achievement of Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, to me, however, would be that it manages to capture the nostalgia and simplicity of old-school gaming with the wealth of options (emphasis on optional!) of current games; all but the most number-crunching and min-maxing players will adore this book; it provides tactical and strategic depth without being mired in it. In case you haven’t noticed: This may not be as crisp as LotFP or S&W, but it is incredibly encompassing. I can pretty much take any book from my library of adventures, setting sourcebooks etc. and run it in FH&W without much fuss. Depending on your skill, you may even pull of such a transition on the fly. I deemed that to be an impossible feat. This book accomplished it.
And yes, I am SO going to get this in print.
If that has, by now, not become abundantly clear: I adore this book. It is a masterpiece in its encompassing nature, in its tendency to embrace what is good about a system, in how easily you can customize it.
If the idea of going old-school with simplified, quicker combat without losing the excitement provided by tactical combat even remotely appeals to you, if you look for a system that can easily handle PFRPG, 5e and OSR-conversions (heck, even 13th Age/4e, but that’ll be more work), then get this right now. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. Oh, and while this was released in 2014, I make it a candidate for my Top Ten – after all, I only was pointed towards this masterpiece this year.
All right, only one thing left for me to do, and that is to thank the patreon that requested this book. I have rarely had so much fun with a book and FH&W is going to accompany me and influence my gaming sensibilities for a long time to come.
You can get this massive masterpiece here on OBS!
You can get this tome in print here on Lulu!